Wednesday, March 22, 2017

JOURNEY TO STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS - Aftermath: Life Debt by Chuck Wendig

LIFE DEBT is the follow-up to the original AFTERMATH novel by Chuck Wendig, the second in the trilogy meant to fill the gaps between the Battle of Endor in EPISODE VI and the Battle of Jakku which sets the stage for EPISODE VII. Like its predecessor, it gets a little more hate from fans than it deserves. Also like its predecessor, it has three significant structure problems: First, the central story is more convoluted than is necessary for the pursuit of its stated premise. Second, it is punctuated with unrelated exposition that offers overall back story but is not necessary for the book's central story. Third, and the one that irks me the most in this book, the premise lines up a story that will apparently focus on legacy characters, but the story immediately sidelines the legacy characters and the original premise to focus on new characters who are preoccupied with having completely different adventures and goals.

As established in their pointless cameo in the first AFTERMATH, Han and Chewie set out to recruit a bunch of smugglers to liberate Kashyyyk from Imperial control. A pretty solid setup for a book, considering that Kashyyyk has gotten little to no love from the core canon. Han and Chewie going rogue after the New Republic turns its back on the Wookiee home world sounds like an awesome setup for a book.

Unfortunately, even though this appeared to be exactly what Chuck Wendig was getting at when he teased the story in the first novel, this turns out not to be the story of this book at all. Despite the fact that even the name of this novel references (and officially canonizes) the Life Debt that Han Solo and Chewbacca owe each other, we learn at the very beginning of the book that this will end up having very little to do with the story to follow.

Right away it is revealed that their effort to form a smugglers' alliance to liberate Kashyyyk failed almost immediately. Not only are there no smugglers on board with the mission when we find Han at the open of the story, but apparently in between books he's managed to get Chewie captured along the way too. If this weren't bad enough, in the establishing scene that informs us of this, Han is attacked during a communication with Leia and contact between them is lost. At this point it becomes clear that the main focus of the book will not be for Han and Chewie to save Kashyyyk, but for somebody else to come around and save Han and Chewie. This is the second of these books to begin with a known character appearing to play a vital role, then immediately being captured so that the new characters can be brought in to rescue him. With one movie and two novels being all we have to tell us the STAR WARS story that takes place after EPISODE VI, all Disney seems to be capable of doing is luring us into the story using one of the legacy characters as the MacGuffin, then pulling a bait-and-switch by swapping that expectation out with the introduction of new characters. While I think this was appropriate in EPISODE VII, it's become a tedious device in the AFTERMATH novels.

This is the AFTERMATH version of the FORCE AWAKENS movie poster

The true heroes of the book, it comes as no surprise, are Norra Wexley and her howling commandos, the intrepid team who came together in the previous book, continuing their exploits as agents of the New Republic. As the story shifts its focus to them, they are on a mission to capture an Imperial deserter.

Grand Admiral Rae Sloan returns as the main antagonist. The Imperial Future Council has been swept away and she now rules the Empire under Fleet Admiral Gallius Rax. At the end of the first book his description reminded me so much of Grand Admiral Thrawn from Timothy Zahn's novels that I thought the mysterious Fleet Admiral was going to turn out to be Thrawn. No such luck. Rax is fulfilling much the same role, except instead of reuniting the factions, Rax wants to purge the unworthy elements of the Empire to sharpen it into something better. 

In Rax's plans we see the evolution of the old Empire into something completely new. He orders Sloane to extract Commandant Brendol Hux of the Arkanis Academy, who is currently trapped under a New Republic siege. Rax wants Hux to serve in his own version of the Imperial Future Council, a Shadow Cabinet he's creating to secretly rule the Empire, composed of members "of the first and highest order". Hux has an illegitimate son whom Rax is also interested in liberating, but he has no interest in Hux's wife or the boy's birth mother. "The Empire needs children," he observes darkly, foreshadowing the First Order's power base of kidnapped and brainwashed children. For now they simply reinstate a breeding incentive program to encourage Imperial offices to have children of their own.

"Ripping a child away from his mother just so you can brainwash him into becoming a pawn in your intergalactic war? That's just terri-- I mean, well, never mind. Carry on."

Some LEGENDS canon finds its way into the official new canon in this book. Han and Leia are married, just as Timothy Zahn established in HEIR TO THE EMPIRE. Also mirroring the events of that book, Han has resigned his military commission and is no longer affiliated with the New Republic. Leia is pregnant in this book, but thankfully the Empire is not fixated on kidnapping her and stealing her Jedi baby, which was the preferred pastime of a number of villains who were introduced in the old LEGENDS canon (including Thrawn).

We learn a little about the new characters as well. Temmin Wexley gets his nickname "Snap" from Wedge Antilles, because he has a habit of snapping his fingers. Wedge is also a mentor to Snap, and is instrumental in recruiting him to become a pilot for the Republic. But because Wedge is just tragically unlucky in love no matter what version of canon you read, he also has a thing for Snap's mom, Norra.

The story goes about as you'd expect from this point. Norra's team consists of Temmin and Mr. Bones, along with Jas Emari and Sinjir Rath Velus. Joining them is New Republic Special Forces officer Jom Barell. Jom doesn't add much to the group dynamic. He mostly says dumb-grunt stuff and goes goo-goo for Jas.

Despite their lack of demonstrated ability, the team manages to find Han and help him find the prison where Chewbacca is being held. They get more than they bargain for when they discover that Temmin's father, Brentin Wexley, who was captured by the Empire years before, is among the prisoners they have just liberated. Which basically tanks Wedge's romantic chances with Norra.

"Thanks for nothin', Chuck."

After a mish-mash of unimportant character conflicts and bickering about the strategic importance of Wookiees, Norra finally resigns her commission in order to help Han rescue Kashyyyk, an objective that's apparently still on the back-burner even though they've spent most of the book doing other stuff. The team manages to attack the Imperial infrastructure keeping the planet subdued, releasing all the Wookiees from the control collars that have kept them compliant. A Wookiee rebellion ensues and the planet is more or less saved. It takes an infuriatingly small amount of story time to accomplish this.

You'd almost think folks didn't want to hear stories about the Wookiee planet.

Back on Chandrila, the current capital of the New Republic, Mon Mothma plans peace talks with Admiral Sloane by inviting her to the Liberation Day celebration. Liberation Day is a holiday commemorating the fall of the Empire and the return of the Republic. Despite how amazingly tactful and diplomatic that strategy is, everything goes sideways almost immediately.

Unbeknownst to Sloane, all the escapees recovered by Norra's team (except Chewbacca, for some reason) have mind-control implants. As they are being honored in the Liberation Day celebration, they show their thanks by taking out blasters and shooting everybody in sight. Our heroes do their best to contain the threat, but in the ensuing chaos, Sloane and Norra's husband escape.

The story ends with Sloane and Brentin Wexley forming an uncomfortable alliance with the shared purpose of discovering the full extent of Gallius Rax's plans and putting an end to him before he can bring them to fruition.

Like its predecessor, this book is fun and worth reading. There are a lot of little bits of information here and there that make it worthwhile if you're on an Easter Egg Hunt for clues as to what we may see in EPISODE VIII. It comes off a little weak on plot and story, mostly because you're sold a different book going in than the one this turns out to be. You probably shouldn't have Han and Chewie fly off to free Kashyyyk, then name the book LIFE DEBT and put a big picture of the Millennium Falcon on the cover if the book you want to write doesn't essentially have anything to do with any of those things.

Taking a snippet of the story that revolves around secondary characters and marketing it like that's the whole story can be misleading to the audience.

Just a thought.

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